The Vulnerability of Prayer
This Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is a very familiar story. Ten lepers approach Jesus and are healed, yet only one returns to give thanks. We can easily see the themes of healing, faith and gratitude, but there are other aspects to this story, which touch on all of our hearts. Lepers are not the only ones suffering from rejection, loneliness and feelings of unworthiness. Have these feeling ever touched you?
Leprosy in the Bible covered a wide variety of skin conditions, but none of them is what we mean by this disease today. While we do not know what kind of skin conditions these men had, we do know that, according to Jewish law, they were required to isolate themselves from normal society.
The social isolation and their subsequent rejection as “unclean” would have been more painful than the disease itself.
The rate of cure from these skin diseases was very low, in fact, first-century rabbis thought that the cure of a leper was as difficult as raising a person from the dead. If a leper recovered, they could only be restored to normal society after the priest examined them and after they had offered the prescribed sacrifice for purification (Leviticus 13–14).
Clearly, Jesus’ miraculous healings came to the attention of these ten men, and the promise of this good news brought them out of isolation. While they desired healing, they needed to have considerable courage to overcome the rejection they would have felt in their community. The lepers “stood at a distance” (Luke 11:12) and “raised their voice” to Jesus (17:13) so that they could keep respectful distance.
A disease caused the plight of these lepers, but their emotional circumstances parallel many people in our world today. Modern researchers have demonstrated that each one of us is hardwired neurologically for connection with others. A sense of secure connection with others is one of our highest needs.
Many people suffer from the fear of being disconnected from others. They often secretly fear that there is something about them, which if revealed to others, would cause other people to reject them because they would not be worthy of connection. The name we give to this fear of disconnection is shame.
The truth is that each one of us has from time to time experienced the feeling that “I’m not good enough.” The “good” which we are measuring with these feelings can vary widely. Some common themes might be the thought that I am not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, successful enough, promoted or appreciated enough. As a result, we often secretly fear that we are unworthy of connection with others.
Researchers tell us that shame is pretty much universal. Shame seems to play a digital track in our mind that says, “I’m never good enough” or if we get past this, “who do you think you are?” A leading relationship researcher, Brené Brown points out, that no one wants to talk about shame, and the less you talk about it, the more shame holds you in its grip.
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is the feeling that we have transgressed some moral norm by our actions. I did something that I regret or that was bad. Guilt can be a healthy emotion that helps us to readjust our actions and lead us to grow. Shame simply says, “I am bad.” It is focused on self rather than behavior. Like the lepers in this Gospel, we can feel shame without actually having done anything wrong. Shame does not lead to spiritual growth.
Why do some people experience paralyzing shame while others seem to overcome these emotions?
The ten lepers illustrate the solution. The lepers feel rejected by their community because they believe their disease makes them unworthy of connection. The nearness of Jesus causes the lepers to choose come out of hiding and to allow themselves to be seen in all in their weakness.
The name for this courageous act of allowing oneself to be seen is vulnerability. Many people assume that vulnerability makes you weak. It actually takes a great deal of courage and authenticity to be vulnerable with others.
Modern researchers have demonstrated that we are all capable of vulnerability, and that vulnerability is the key catalyst to forming secure human connections. Shame can only grow and thrive in secrecy and darkness. Vulnerably releases us from the paralyzing grip of shame.
Brené Brown explains, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage” (Rising Strong).
Although she does not use the word vulnerability, St. Teresa of Avila in her work, The Interior Castle, admonishes that the soul practicing prayer should spend much time in the room of self-knowledge. St. Teresa equates self-knowledge with humility. No matter how advanced a soul is it always needs self-knowledge or an awareness of what we were, what we are by the grace of God, what we would be without Him, and of the constant danger of falling if we rely on ourselves.
St. Teresa observes, “Without humility all will be lost” (IC, 13). Teresa warns that we must not only think of our own weakness but must “soar aloft in meditation” on God’s greatness. In prayer there are no secrets hidden from God, and he communicates his unconditional love to us.
In community, we must learn to accept who we are and be willing to let other see who we are. Having said this, of course this does not mean having no healthy boundaries, or privacy with others. It means the willingness to practice vulnerability.
There is also a danger of false humility or thinking that we are humble because of our weaknesses. St. Teresa observes that when the soul only thinks of its own weakness and never of God’s greatness there is a danger that we will not rise above our own nature by grace and remain burdened by cowardice and fear. Again, this sounds a great deal like a description of paralyzing shame.
Our Gospel today is a metaphor for our own journey with God in prayer. We need to be vulnerable first interiorly with ourselves and then before God. The presence of Jesus brought the lepers out of hiding. Being seen by Jesus allowed them to be healed. We need the courage to let our weakness be seen, and to allow ourselves to vulnerable.
Deacon Scott McKellar is pastoral associate at St. Therese North Parish.